Advocating for (a little) Adhocracy

redTape-230x276 Different than a bureaucracy, an adhocracy is a theory of organizational management within which functions, groups, and structures within organizations cut across traditionally defined lines and defy standard bureaucratic constructs. At the risk of sounding like I’m describing organizational anarchy (I’m not), it’s a philosophy that has some pretty attractive-sounding tenets, at least when those tenets are reasonably applied to certain scenarios.

An adhocracy is most assuredly a textbook example of the old easier-said-than-done adage, and just like almost any organizational theory, it has its weaknesses. And just like any idea, it’s going to be neither universally applicable nor universally successful. This model won’t work in every organization, industry, or situation; but will probably work more often than we think and in more situations than we think.

What’s this adhocracy look like? Perhaps it would be helpful to think of them as being similar to cross-departmental project teams or task forces. Or like organizational Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Or better yet–Voltron. Or something. OK, I don’t think any of those really captures the idea well, but an adhocracy has some of the below attributes:

1. People at multiple levels of the organization are empowered to make meaningful decisions.

2. No, really. They actually mean #1 above.

3. Instead of innovators being patronized or ideas being crushed, leaders value innovation over standardization, and therefore it’s more prevalent, encouraged, and rewarded. Creative confidence is built.

4. In an adhocracy, people are more OK with the gray. Folks are flipping out if authority roles aren’t as clearly defined. Find people who specialize in things, give them the information and connections they need to do their thing, and then grab some popcorn and a soda and get the heck out of the way. It’s amazing what people can do when we get out of their way.

5. On the whole, it’s well-suited to problem-solving and innovating. If that’s the sort of environment you’re going for, maybe you should give some of this a look. If you prefer having very clearly-defined authority structures where power originates more from position in hierarchy than from something else; and if your organization and/or industry is more well-suited to a methodical, measured, conservative, reactive, traditional business model; I wouldn’t suggest incorporating elements of an adhocracy.

6. Members of the organization have authority within their respective areas of specialization to make decisions and take action. This one’s tough. It means we have to let go. We don’t get to control everything. We need to trust our folks enough to let them do their thing. Often, the best thing we can do as leaders is create space for our folks to do what they’re good at and then–as I said above–get out of the way. Let them work, collaborate, and make things happen. Be there to support, advise, and roll up your sleeves and help; but not to dictate.

7. The structure itself is very organic in nature, meaning that it is very free-flowing, loose, constantly evolving, etc. I’ve said it so many times that I’m sure you’re annoyed, but organizations are clumps of humans, and since that’s the case, we need to embrace the fact that we’re all flawed, unique, weird-in-our-own-way people. So knowing that, why not roll with it more? Heck–why not harness it and take advantage of the fact that humans have this amazing ability to adapt, create, collaborate, progress, perform, grow, learn, and propel themselves and the collective forward.

Like I said, I don’t think the adhocracy is for everyone, but it may be that your team could unlock and unleash some hidden potential by employing one or more of the above adhoc-ish (I know, I know–that’s not a real word) ideas with your teammates. Or maybe there’s a particular project coming up that might lend itself to being successfully completed via an adhocracy.

So think about it. How might you be able to adjust how your team works together? What new forms or structures or constructs could potentially be tweaked in such a way that it produces new and better outcomes? Let us know in the comments section if you’d like!

8 thoughts on “Advocating for (a little) Adhocracy

  • Agree that Adhocracy is a valid and needed way to organize. It is about flexibility and organizing around the work; this will deliver the greatest satisfaction, efficiency, and results.

    Great model. Thanks! Jon

  • Great post on a method of management that is VERY much needed in today’s fast pace of change and technological innovation. I have come to understand that it’s our ability to collaborate, entertain creative thoughts, think on our feet and take risks that determines our success in today’s business climate. As someone who studied improv for many years, I found these skills very useful as an entrepreneur. But the term “improvise” can scare some. “Adhocracy” seems like a great alternative.

    • Good point, Jenise. This very discussion recently came up in a graduate course on adaptive leadership and improvisation. It was a fascinating discussion, and one that I think could really helpful if it were something that especially aspiring leaders were exposed to from early in their careers. As much as creativity and improvisation can become habits (paradoxical as that may sound at first), you want them to become that. An especially interesting conversation arose around the idea that even leaders who embrace and drive change are still often not all that great when it doesn’t go according to plan. In other words, they can manage the heck out of the change–as long as it goes exactly how they think it will. If something goes sideways (and let’s face it–it always does), they’re left scrambling and discouraged. So what if our posture was one where we anticipated–maybe even looked forward to–the heat getting turned up? To use an analogy from your world of improv–what if we learned to “enter the danger” more readily? What if we learned to better embrace those moments where the scene is thrown at us and we feel entirely unprepared, and instead of running, we step into those dangerous moments?

  • Exceptional to see this being discussed. Is this your post Matt? Thank you!

    The idea of adhocratic organizational governance, structure and management can permit agility. I believe that today’s required migration to a more social business culture is driven by the need to embrace change. The agility of an adhocracy integrated with an iterative process for change [organic – point #7] could be the silver bullet ideal for the successful business of tomorrow. The root of this ends up being more engaged workers that waste less time.

    It’s not as difficult as the language it takes to explain it. The true difficulty lies in existing resistance to change, political cultures and self-protectionism with the ranks of leadership.

    Again, I’m grateful for the conversation and hope it will grow. Do you have recommendations for meetups, huddles, chats or twitter hashtags around this topic?

  • Some great ideas here, which I support immensely. Perhaps point #2 being the most important. It’s subject to multiple interpretations, especially in this kind of structure. Only question, which I would be interested in hearing about from others: “Change and creativity must be subject to a value-added test. How does that fit into such an organic process when empowerment is moved down to the individual level?”

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